ON THE RECORD: Elf, Songs From a Stage Door Canteen Concert, Linda Lavin's "Possibilities"
By Steven Suskin
Listening to the original Broadway cast recording of Elf; Stage Door Canteen from Lyrics & Lyricists; and "Possibilities," a solo album from Linda Lavin.
Based on the refreshing 2003 New Line movie starring Will Ferrell, Elf managed to replicate the cinematic charm to the stage. Sebastian Arcelus brought the right combination of boy/man to the developmentally frozen elf named Buddy, allowing the contrived-on-purpose plot to work. (This, mind you, was the precise trap that scuttled the big-budget musical disappointment of 1996, Big.) Elf, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, had just the right touch of nostalgia, corn, and satire — elements that were extended to the work of designers David Rockwell, Gregg Barnes, and Natasha Katz.
In a musical, of course, the score is — or should be — the thing. The Elf score is better than average, brightly melodic and full of cheer. Composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin are the folks from The Rhythm Club, one of those musicals that attracted a good deal of attention when it was produced regionally — at Signature Theatre in Arlington, in 2000 — but was disbanded en route to Broadway due to money-raising woes. The team finally made it to town in 2006, with the sub-par Wedding Singer. Elf demonstrates that they are both adept at musical comedy. Sklar provides some jolly tunes, while Beguelin offers an assortment of well-turned lyrics. Anyone who cares to rhyme "elf" with "Philadelfffff----fia" gets a nod from me.
The show was somewhat marred by the use of too many reprises; five of the 11 songs were sung again, which usually signifies a lack of ingenuity and is in any event too high a percentage for comfort. On the CD, though, this is of minor import. The recording also allows us to appreciate just how good a job was done by music director Phil Reno and orchestrator Doug Besterman; the swing and jazz charts, especially, add to the festive mood. I expect that a larger-than-ordinary share of credit should go to dance arranger David Chase; three large-scale numbers — "Sparklejollytwinklejingley," "The Story of Buddy the Elf" and "Nobody Cares About Santa Claus" — are well routined and pretty joyous. The last, for a corps of unemployed Santas, is especially droll; someone — Sklar? Chase? Besterman? — had the daffy but inspired idea of turning it into a "St. James Infirmary" version of "Jingle Bells." Arcelus is joined by Amy Spanger, Mark Jacoby, Beth Leavel, Valerie Wright and a good child actor named Matthew Gumley. Also especially notable on two of the tracks is big-voiced Michael Mandell.
Elf was a family show, intended for family audiences but crammed with sly touches for the delectation of more sophisticated viewers. And no wonder: this is what director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw was doing while overseeing the final pre-rehearsal touches to The Book of Mormon. Theatregoers who do not have it in their genetic makeup to enjoy a musical where a kid and his mom sing a song about how there really is a Santa Claus are hereby given a pass; other listeners will find Elf a good old fashioned musical, full of real tunes. Closer to Mame, say, than Cabaret. But what's wrong with that? And don't we perennially need a little Christmas?
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Stage Door Canteen [DRG 94799]
But recreations of USO shows tend to sound more nostalgic than interesting to me. Which is why I was surprised and heartened when I put on Stage Door Canteen. This collection is bright and tuneful, with songs from the era — mostly culled from Broadway shows — that are refreshing. Performed by an adept cast, namely Debra Monk, Jeffry Denman, Brandon Victor Dixon, Betsy Wolfe and Anderson Davis. With friendly and snazzy arrangements for six pieces by music director Andy Einhorn. I was anticipating just another patriotic anthology, and I found something like a WWII Ain't Misbehavin'.
There is not a show in Stage Door Canteen, at least not yet. It was devised by Ted Chapin for the Lyrics and Lyricists series at the 92nd Street Y, where it was performed last March. In the concert hall, the songs were accompanied by a lecture by Chapin about the Stage Door Canteen and the legit theatre's contributions to same. An interesting narration, I've no doubt; but Chapin and the people at DRG saw fit to excise the talking and record just the songs. The results really do sound like the cast album for some show that doesn't yet exist. But maybe it should.
Linda Lavin: Possibilities [Ghostlight]
Lavin is no stranger to musical theatre. She made her Broadway debut in 1962 in the John Kander-James Goldman-William Goldman A Family Affair. Hal Prince, in his liner note for the CD at hand, explains that when he took over as director after the Philadelphia opening, Lavin was in the chorus with a few showy bits; she was good enough "to persuade me to enlarge her role almost every rehearsal day as the show was rewritten." She returned to the musical world in January 1966, giving a deliciously perfect performance of the Mary Rodgers-Stephen Sondheim "The Boy From. . ." in the Off-Broadway revue The Mad Show. (If you've never heard it, download the track right now.)
Lavin remained but a month, wafted off by Prince for his musical It's a Bird. . . It's a Plane. . . It's Superman. This time, the authors — Charles Strouse and Lee Adams — provided Lavin with "You've Got Possibilities." Superman opened and quickly fizzled, leaving the featured actress available to graduate to stardom in the role of Daisy Gamble in the first national company of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. I suppose we should say the dual role of Daisy Gamble and Melinda Wells, which is just about double in size to what the corresponding actors are doing in the version of the Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner musical now playing at the St. James. Lavin starred opposite Van Johnson, no less. The tour was a disaster, disbanding after a mere nine weeks. After which Lavin went Hollywood, turning herself into a full-fledged TV star. She tuned up her pipes to replace Tyne Daly in the 1989 revival of Gypsy, and she sang "Broadway Baby" in the Kennedy Center engagement of the current Follies. But Lavin's musical days, one imagined, were long past.
But here comes "Possibilities." Lavin is, true, somewhat older than when she sang "You've Got Possibilities" back in 1966; but if you didn't know this was Lavin, I don't imagine you'd think the singer was over 60, or over 70. There is still that sweet, friendly sound of long ago (and "sweet" and "friendly" are not words you'd use to describe Lavin-the-actress). Aided, abetted and augmented by Billy Stritch plus four sidemen. Songs include "Hey Look Me Over" and a fine "It Amazes Me," from Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman; a bright rendition of "Rhode Island Is Famous for You" by Schwartz and Dietz; and the Henry Mancini-Leslie Bricusse "Two for the Road."
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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